Tehran has announced a ban on the encrypted messaging service Telegram and it is propagating the Iranian app Soroush. Apps such as Telegram were an important tool used by activists in the anti-government protests last year. Technology become an important tool for social change in Iran, and mobile applications may be playing a role in shaping Iranian civil society.
Modern day Iran is considered one of the most oppressive regimes in the world. The government of Iran has been criticized both for restrictions and punishments that follow the Islamic Republic's constitution and law. In 2016, the United Nations General Assembly approved a resolution expressing “serious concern” about Iran’s high rate of executions without legal safeguards, the ongoing use of torture, widespread arbitrary detentions, sharp limits on freedom of assembly, expression, religious belief, continuing discrimination against women and ethnic and religious minorities, including Baha’is.
Protests stemming from economic discontent erupted on 28 December 2017, as tens of thousands of Iranians took to the streets. Food prices nearly doubled towards the end of 2017. Nearly 40% of Iranians between the ages of 15 to 24 are unemployed. Citizens also expressed anger that the nuclear deal signed in 2015, did not result in an improvement in the standard of living in the country. Resentment was expressed about the money Tehran has fuelled towards military conflicts occurring in different parts of the Middle East. The protests turned violent and resulted in the deaths of at least 25 people.
Read more on the protests here.
Telegram is a multi-media instant messaging and blogging service released in 2013. It offers services such as public broadcasting, “secret chats”, voice calls and video messages. In March 2018, Telegram claimed that it had 200 million monthly active users. Its founder, Russian entrepreneur Pavel Durov, has claimed that it is “hack proof.”
End-to-end encryption ensures that chat histories are only accessible by those participating in the conversation. The data is inaccessible even by service providers or the messaging service. In addition to end-to-end encryption, Telegram uses custom systems of encryption and stores messages on its own servers. In a public post on Telegram’s “Telegraph”, Durov stated that Telegram has its own “cross-jurisdictional encrypted cloud storage” system and does not rely on third-parties such as Google Drive or iCloud for back up. It also has the option of “secret” chats that are not backed up.
Telegram is highly popular in Iran, where it has over 40 million users. Telegram gained popularity in 2014 after another messaging app Viber was blocked due to alleged ties to Israel. Telegram was reportedly widely used by protestors in Iran during the 2017 anti-government protests. The app’s encryption features allowed users to communicate privately to organise and publicise demonstrations. Telegram was consequently blocked for a brief period, along with Instagram, an image sharing, and instant messaging app owned by Facebook.
Earlier this month, the Iranian government announced its intention to permanently ban the app over “national security” concerns. Telegram has also been blocked in Russia for refusing to provide officials access to encrypted messages. This week, Iran’s only telecom corporation Telecommunication Infrastructure Company, cancelled Telegram’s licence in Iran.
Iranian leaders have instead been publicising Soroush, an app developed in Iran. "The activities of the presidency's Telegram channel have stopped in support of domestic messaging apps,” a state news channel announced. Ayatollah Khamenei's Telegram channel was also shut down. Soroush, which has approximately five million users, offers similar features to Telegram. However, users have been sceptical as to whether it offers a similar degree of privacy and data security. Public information available on the app does not mention end to end encryption. Soroush has also been reported to include nationalistic emojis. A number of these “stickers” or emojis include a woman wearing a chador, holding signs calling for death to America, Israel, and Freemasons.
While Soroush has not seen huge popularity thus far, Iranian civil society has developed a number of other apps that promote civil rights and democracy. One of these apps is Hafez, which means “to protect.” Hafez is an app that provides a list of human rights lawyers in Iran, provides users with information on human rights, and allows them to report violations. Another project, the Iran Prison Atlas, a database of current political prisoners being held by the Iranian government, has reportedly been used by the UN Human Rights Council.
Human rights activists in Iran have stated that technology is an important tool that can be used to promote Iranian civil society. They have also stressed the importance of anonymity in an authoritarian state. Keyvan Rafiee, founder of Human Rights Activists Iran noted, "Free and uncensored circulation of information opens society to changes and accelerates the process of democratisation." A number of activists have been able to skirt governmental restrictions by using Virtual Private Networks (VPN).
Telegram CEO Pavel Durov has fashioned himself as a champion of data privacy. In context of the Russian ban, he said that Telegram would always "stand for freedom and privacy". However, Telegram has been accused of enabling communication within terrorist organisations due to its encryption. The Iranian government has charged CEO Pavel Durov in absentia due to Telegram’s popularity amongst terrorists and traffickers. Telegram is reportedly used by the Islamic State. Other encrypted messaging services such as WhatsApp have been harshly criticised on similar grounds.
Our assessment is that the recent protests in Iran were an example of the ability of technology to spur social change. The ban on Telegram and this move to propagate a state-sponsored service may be an attempt to check Iranian civil society. However, stifling communication channels used by dissenters is not a viable long-term solution. We believe that while the protests died down in January, the resentment felt by Iranian citizens may be unlikely to dissipate unless the state heeds the voice of the people.
As stated previously, we also feel that while fears surrounding suppression of free speech are highly valid, apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram may serve as a platform for terrorist activity. This issue must be addressed.